House proposal could raise the bar for raising taxes

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Delegate Pat McGeehan, a member of the Liberty Caucus in the state Legislature, is proposing a resolution that could lead to two-thirds votes in both legislative chambers as a requirement to raises taxes or fees.

McGeehan, a Republican from Hancock County who sits in the back row of the House of Delegates, hasn’t always gotten what he wants.

This time could be different. A news release describing McGeehan’s proposal — described as the “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” — suggests it also has support of House leadership.

In an interview, House Speaker Tim Armstead expressed interest in some new structure to limit how taxes could be raised, although he said his caucus still has to determine what that structure might be.

Those who are skeptical of placing greater limits on tax increases cite the need for flexibility, the possibility of ongoing budget problems and the capacity of lawmakers to judge for themselves whether a tax increase is an appropriate step.

McGeehan’s resolution, if passed by both houses, would require a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment.

McGeehan, speaking in an interview in his office, said he thinks a two-thirds majority requirement for tax increases would force lawmakers to seriously consider whether an increase is truly necessary.

“It’s just too easy for politicians to come down here and they get a lackluster economic forecast or they get a lackluster report on revenue coming in and the first thing they want to do is ‘We’ll just raise taxes,'” McGeehan said.

“If it’s much more difficult to raise taxes, that sort of changes the paradigm and puts that option to the side. Now the debate transforms to, ‘OK, this is how much money we have that we’re bringing in currently.’ And the debate then becomes ‘How do we prioritize our spending.’ And I think that’s a much better debate.”

Over the past couple of years, up against shrinking revenue, lawmakers have voted for some tax increases. Two years ago, lawmakers approved a 65-cent per pack tobacco tax increase. Last year, lawmakers agreed to raise the gasoline tax and DMV fees to support Gov. Jim Justice’s road bond initiative.

Generally, though, the legislative trend has been toward reducing taxes rather than raising them.

This year, the Republican majority wants to phase out taxes on property for industrial manufacturers. A few years ago, under Democratic majorities, the state cut the corporate net income and business franchise tax, a move progressives have complained cut the revenue necessary to adequately fund state functions.

Armstead, the House speaker, said he supports a higher bar for raising taxes — but it’s not clear yet what mechanism leadership plans to get behind.

“There are a couple of different versions. One or more of those will likely be introduced, and I certainly personally have interest in us moving forward with it,” said Armstead, R-Kanawha.

One possibility is, of course, the supermajority that McGeehan advocates. “If you do that, there are usually exceptions in that for emergency situations,” Armstead said.

The other approach would be to tie any increases in the budget to increases in state economic growth.

“There has been a great deal of interest in our caucus in looking at some kind of approach that would, in the long term, control our spending and ensure that we’re not getting in the type of situation that we got in the past few years where we have these huge budget deficits.”

Tim Miley

House Minority Leader Tim Miley said he wanted to be cautious with his reaction because he hadn’t yet seen the language of the bill. But Miley said he would have reservations about requiring a supermajority for tax decisions that have, traditionally, been made by a simple majority.

“Before I commit to supporting or opposing the proposed resolution and constitutional amendment, I would have to see the language of what he’s trying to accomplish,” said Miley, D-Harrison.

“For example, is it a prohibition on general taxes being raised or does it all include fee increases? We’d have to take a look at that. Because obviously no one wants to increases taxes but sometimes it may be necessary if we find ourselves in a troubling spot like we’ve had the last few years.”

Miley said that there are plenty of other issues that carry similar weight to decisions about taxes.

“We have to trust individual lawmakers to use their judgement on whether or not additional taxes are necessary,” Miley said. “We only have a majority vote for so many other pieces of legislation that affect the lives of West Virginians — so why not make every vote a two-thirds majority requirement?

“I’m loathe to make broad, sweeping changes because it’s politically popular. I’d rather take the legislation as it’s presented to us, examine it, try to ascertain what far-reaching effects it might be from implementing it and then make a decision.”

Eric Nelson

House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, who has the challenging job of making sure the revenue and expenditures balance, said he’d need to take a closer look at McGeehan’s proposal.

“I have not seen that bill. I’ve heard delegates talking about it,” said Nelson, R-Kanawha.

“I believe there’s some merit to having a supermajority when revenues need to be increased. But at the same time, in my role, I wear both hats. And if you come in to a difficult time, which we’ve had the last few years sometimes it may be impossible to get that two-thirds majority. So, we’ve got to be flexible.”

Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia, which lobbies for lower taxes and against raising them, is in favor of the proposal.

“Requiring a two-thirds majority vote in order to adopt any tax increase legislation would significantly safeguard the citizens of the Mountain State from unnecessary additional tax burdens in the future,” stated Jason Huffman, state director for the organization.


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